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Upon learning that The Magus had won a place in the BBC's Top One-Hundred Books list, I decided to give it a read. It is often - quite rightly - referred to as a cult classic, and it is only around two hundred pages into the book that it becomes clear why.
The story follows a young teacher by the name of Nicholas Urfe. Deciding he wishes to get away from dreary London, Nicholas takes a job on the sparsely populated Greek island of Phraxos. As his departure date draws nearer, the young Mr Urfe becomes reluctant to leave his Australian girlfriend Alison (a character who, although rarely making an appearance, becomes more and more significant as the book progresses). He does leave however, and although captivated by the island's majestic scenery and untouched landscape, he finds he is incredibly lonely with only one of his fellow schoolmasters to easily converse with. Out walking one day, Nicholas spots a charming villa and decides to go for a closer look. This, as he puts it himself, is 'when the mysteries began.'
The other main character of the book is a rather eccentric elderly gentleman by the name of Maurice Conchis. Conchis, it is revealed later in the book, is the Magus (being the magician figure in the Tarot pack), and he takes great pleasure in bringing said mysteries before Nicholas. Conchis introduces his new friend to a young lady he calls Lily. This may seem perfectly normal, but it is only when you take into account that the previous evening Conchis informed the young teacher that his former fiancé - Lily - was killed many years previously that it becomes rather eerie. This is one of many bizarre experiences the old man has in store for Nicholas, and although Conchis does all in his power to lead Nicholas to believe all the strange events are ESP-related, the young man is having none of it, and soon finds himself confronting Conchis and in the process falling for the beautiful Lily.
I have never read a book quite like The Magus, and I don't expect I ever will. There were times when making my journey through the six-hundred plus pages that I thought, 'I really don't want to read on.' Fowles' narration is incredibly rich, and although the story itself is nothing short of genius, I frequently found the author's storytelling somewhat difficult to follow; the regular exchanges in Greek and French for example, as well as the conversations between the two primary characters, which was often a fierce battle of intellect.
However, the parallels between the relationships of Conchis and Nicholas, and the author and reader are apparent: Conchis entices the young schoolmaster into his 'godgame,' all too aware that Nicholas will not be able to walk away - he will be forced to keep going back for more in his desperation to find the truth behind the old man's games. The same is true of the reader - by the second half of the book I literally couldn't put it down, even though the 'mysteries' became more and more frequent, and Conchis told more and more lies. I find it difficult to convey the level of imagination the author has put into the book, you need to read it in order to understand the mystical quality of The Magus. It really is unlike any other book.
*First published on Amazon.co.uk*
The Magus is John Fowles first novel written in the 1960's and is about an Englishman called Nicholas Urfe, Nicholas is a Oxford graduate who looking for the next thing in his life answers an advert to do some teaching at a school on the small Greek Island of Phraxos. The whole novel is a first person perspective from the viewpoint of Nicholas, Nicholas is intelligent, good looking, comes from a reasonably affluent family without being rich, and tends to analyze everything and everyone. Urfe is the classic English man abroad, arrogant, believing in the power of the English over the continentals and has a strangely liberal viewpoint on sex and sexuality.
Urfe just before going to the island meets a beautiful Australian girl called Alison, who he lives with for a while before managing to annoy enough to force her to leave. Alison drives him away and becomes a air hostess, this is a classic contrast between the arrogance of the english versus the more rounded views of a member of the British colonial empire. Alison is your classic abrasive Aussie, all confident yet wanting approval from a member of the old country when that doesn't come, she leaves him.
Urfe meets a predesserors who warns him about a magician on the island and the first two hundred pages is an attempt to find the mysterious character when he does the book really starts.
He meets the mysterious magus and from this point everything is circles within circles, mysteries leading to engima's and back to confusion. Urfe allows himself to be drawn into this world and once he starts believing or understanding the rules of the game change and the author plays with Nicholas and through him the reader. The reader is drawn in very quickly and allowed to leave only when the author allows it, the Magus is a rich and poweful man who spins tales and strings some kind of lifestyle around his past and his life stories, he has influence and power and sets up a situation where Nicholas is slowly trapped.
However, this shouldn't be viewed as Nicholas being trapped and desperate in many ways Nicholas wants to be trapped to explore his intellect, his sexuality and freed from the constraints of England allows himself to explore his attitudes to race, sex and equality. There are traps and dimensions of stories which once he understands or is told something leads to a change in the story, this is really clever writing just when the reader starts to understand the rules are changed and explanations given explain the previous only in ways which show the Magus knews everything and controls all.
Nicholas is a classic anti-hero in the last days of empire, educated but intrinsically lazy, he gets into Oxford through his fathers money but fails his exams so gets a poor third. He assumes that his father will always bail him out but his father dies in debt and Nicholas is on his own and his laziness bites by only being suitable for an oversees teaching position.
His slackness is endemic through out the novel, he like Britain in general just assumes he will be always in a strong position and whatever happens he will always have money and position. Alison is the first chink in this and his behavior on the island leads him to be played by the magus, he will change and be changed, does he come out the better?
We meet an array of characters in the novel but the book circles through only two really Nicholas and the Magus Conchis, Conchis is an older and more experienced man. THrough these two we encounter ephemeral twins, one loving Nicholas and the other unmoved, mute deaf black man called Joe, and an array of occassional villagers and school teachers.
The author Fowles plays with us, and rather than getting stuck at any point moves the story along at a decent pace without the need to over analyze or under play certain key scenes. Nicholas is the cad, Conchis the players, whose the monster? Whose playing with who, and is Nicholas a willing participant or a confused english school teacher in a strange land looking at his sexuality?
The book moves to its end, the story which starts as a bit of fun throws itself into Greek mythology, Nazi undertones and the thin line between reality and illusion is shattered. The book ultimatley ends oddly with many stories and the reader is finally shown that the Magus isn't Conchis at all but Fowles and the person he's been playing with well its you of course.
The Magus is John Fowles masterpiece and one of the most memorable British novels of the 20th century. This is one of only a handful of books which I have been literally unable to put down and have read for hours and hours at a time.
Other reviews on this site detail the plot but to go into too much detail is to spoil the magic of the book. The central character is Nicholas who accepts a teaching post on a Greek island. He meets there an old man who engages Nicholas in a kind of alternate reality, a living theatre full of contrived situations, real props and actors. The boundaries of reality and fiction are blurred (both by the old man Conchis in his experiment with Nicholas and by the author). Nicholas is forced to challenge everything he sees and experiences and begins to question himself in the process.
The book actually reminded me - albeit very vaguely of The Truman Show starring Jim Carey.
I cannot reccommend this book highly enough. The reader follows Nicholas and like him, is forced to challenge everything. The reader is in an almost perpetual state of confusion whilst reading it and this is what hooked me in- I kept having to read more to discover answers to all the mysteries it throws up.
As for the ending- you will either love it or hate it. I loved it (although I have only experienced the original ending and not the revised one).
The Magus was the first novel John Fowles ever attempted to write. By
the time he finally finished it, he had written and published two more. Since
then, he has gone back to revise the novel and this new edition is probably the
one you will read. I am told the old one is even more cerebral and confusing and
personally wouldn't like to try it.
The Magus is the story of a young man named Nick D'Urfe, who graduates from
Oxford and finds he has nothing he wants to do. His father was a straight laced
army officer who never showed him affection. Both of Nick's parents died in a
plane crash. Nick finds he has new neighbours living below him, they are
Australian and he starts a relationship with one of them. As they drift apart,
Nick decides he needs to leave the country, he ends up taking a teaching job on
a remote Greek island. Before he goes, he is ominously warned to avoid "the
waiting room" by a past teacher at the school.
Once he arrives, Nick learns more and more about a mysterious islander named
Conchis, who owns a huge amount of the island and was once the mayor but ran
into scandal during the German Occupation in WW2. Nick starts to visit Conchis
regularly and learns more and more about him whilst finding himself in the midst
of an elaborate stage show Conchis has put on where nothing can be believed and
all is symbolic. As the novel progresses, Nick finds himself falling for a woman
who appears to be the Ghost of Conchis' old fiancee, leading him further and
further into the abyss...
The Magus took John Fowles more than four years to write and is undoubtedly one
of the most cerebral books ever written. The plot has so many twists and turns
that even though it goes on for a good 600 pages, you're still left utterly
confused and back where you started. This is an extremely well written book and
even though Nick is a fairly arrogant, insular character, you feel a lot of
empathy for him as he tries to keep the excitement alive. The reader is
transported with him on a remarkable adventure and like Nick, though it is
utterly incomprehensible at times, you will come back for more.
I first read this book almost 20 years ago while I was still at college. At the time I knew nothing of the author John Fowles and had never read any of his other books. I picked up my tattered copy from a second hand bookshop in Brighton and from the title I expected some kind of fantasy story, boy was I mistaken!
Taking another look at it many years later I wouldn't say this is a book I'd like to re-read, far from it I don't think I could re-read 'The Magus' but I wish I could read it again for the first time. If ever the old cliché of a un-put-downable read applied then it applies to this book. I was one of the most surprising reads I've ever come across and it would be nice to recapture that feeling.
Nicholas Urfe is a young Oxford graduate in the early 50's, he is bored with teaching at a small English public school, he's tired of his Australian girlfriend Alison and decides to expand his horizons by taking up a job abroad. He applies for and is accepted as an English teacher at a school on the remote Greek island of Phraxos. Soon bored with the mundane surrounding and the regular trips to the mainland brothels, Nicholas becomes intrigued to hear of the reclusive millionaire Conchis that also lives on the island on a large estate separate from the main island village. Stories circulate amongst the villagers about Conchis and his involvement in the War as a German collaborator he is neither liked nor trusted by them. The more Nicholas finds out the more mysterious and contradictory the stories become. Inevitably Nicholas meets Conchis and thus begins a breathtaking, disturbing and emotionally draining adventure as Nicholas become drawn deeper and deeper into a seductive world of truth, lies and illusion.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
John Fowles is the ultimate literary trickster, I suppose more than anyone else he is 'The Magus' (or magician) of the title. He knows how to take his readers and tease them into a story then just as we begin to feel comfortable he changes the rules and destroys the comfortable imaginary world that he has created. Like many of his other novels and short stories The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman and 'The Ebony Tower', Fowles always likes to play with the accepted conventions of the narrative style. Time is distorted, reality is questioned and generally the reader is kept very much on his/her toes.
In Nicholas Urfe he gives us the classic anti-hero, the loveable rogue that whilst not being evil in nature shows little or no moral respect for those around him. I suppose by today's standards Nicholas would be a 'new lad', highly educated but lacking discipline or drive. His only motivations are sex and self-interest.
"By the standards of that pre-permissive time I'd had a good deal of sex for my age. I wasn't ugly and even more important, I had my loneliness, which as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My 'technique' was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference. Then, like a conjuror with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart. By the time I left Oxford I was a dozen girl away from virginity"
He went to Oxford pretended to be an existentialist and got a third class degree making him fit only for second class teaching jobs in the smaller less regarded public schools.
" Handsomely equipped to fail I went out into the world."
Not that this was ever going to be his future. He loathed any long-term commitment and when his girlfriend Alison begins in his way of thinking, to stifle their relationship he wants out.
Nicholas is a brilliant invention, sympathetic enough for us to relate to him but selfish enough that we can accept the bewilderment and emotional trauma that he eventually experiences without feeling too much sympathy for him.
There are other very strong characters in this novel Conchis is just one but they are more difficult to describe and much more difficult to understand. This novel more than any other is almost impossible to review without coming close to affecting the pleasure of reading it. It is like a Chinese puzzle that you hold in your hand and slowly tentatively turn around to try and get a different perspective but fail.
The Magus is a mystery, a love story, a thriller, a horror and a literary novel. There is little to compare it to in literature.
Fowles's style is rich and elaborate at times it can come across as pretentious as he often show his extensive knowledge of archaic French history and English literature by peppering the texts with clever references and cryptic phrases but his writing always remains accessible and in the case of The Magus the literary feel of the text and the rich imagery enhances the effect of the story. This elaborate style is an aspect that might dissuade some in the same way that a viewer might struggle to make sense of the inherent symbolism in Peter Greenway film or a Harold Pinter play, in the end it doesn't matter since much of it is decorative, the story and the interaction of the characters can be appreciated independently.
Ah! The ending of 'The Magus' has been much debated. Suffice to say that the author felt obliged in 1977 to re-write the original 1966 ending. Although not radically different fans have been debating which is the better since then. Having read both I confess that the re-write which is reproduced in the latest editions slightly enhances the effect of the story after completion but the original might have fitted better in the overall context of the mystery and complexity of the novel.
The newer edition also includes an interesting foreword by the author but this is best read after you have completed the book otherwise I feel it might give too much away and spoil your enjoyment of the story.
Criticisms of the book have ranged from some calling it a pretentious exercise of style over substance to a shallow exploitative read, which uses simple literary devices to obtain a cheap thrill. There might be the merest hint of truth in some of this but the novel provided much more than cheap thrills and spills. In a very unusual way it does explore the psychology of the human mind and the reality of human nature. Despite the boorishness of the hero Nicholas or perhaps because of him and the situation he find himself in a feminist take of the novel however unexpected is also possible. In fact in many ways this novel is slightly ahead of its time and many of its contemporaries.
The book is now close to 40 years old and it has dated but this has improved it and the near remoteness of the time in which it is set as added to it's exotic feel. I think it would have to be set in the past even if it were written today.
In short it is one of those books that to some will be a gripping but ultimately superficial read to others it might also be a life changing experience and a work of literary genius.
Maybe I will read it again!
You can buy 'The Magus' in paperback (656 pages- Published by Vintage ISBN: 0099743914) from Amazon.co.uk for £6.39 (+p&p)
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On a small Greek Island a young English teacher discovers and becomes subject of a labryinthic mystery.